A beacon of cultural understanding
[A beacon of cultural understanding]

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As the wife of a UB graduate student from Indonesia, Irid Farida Agoes faced enormous adjustments to life in Buffalo back in June 1980.

"Remembering my first few weeks in Buffalo was terrifying," she writes. "I joined my husband and brought our three young children, envisioning a happy life in what I was told was the most modern country and dreamland of the world.

"What a surprise! What a different life compared to what I had in Indonesia. Not only had I lost my opportunity to have an income (as a dependent of a graduate student from abroad, I could not work), I was also confined to my home and housework. In the cold weather of Buffalo in June (I thought June should be hot like Jakarta), outside our apartment all I could see were closed doors."

A shy exchange of cakes with a neighbor opened the doors of understanding, however, and Agoes quickly made friends and was accepted to the university, earning an M.A. in American Studies in 1982.

Returning to Indonesia in 1982 to become national director of the American Field Service (AFS) Exchange Programs, Agoes sought to foster understanding among national groups. In 1986, she was sent by the Indonesian government to study problems faced by government-funded graduate students in 60 universities in the U.S. and Canada. "Indonesians usually had a harder time adjusting to life in North America, compared to the academic challenges," she writes. "The percentage of failure due to lifestyle, learning methods and values was discouraging."

In 1987, Agoes was asked to design a course on international relations for the American Studies Department of the University of Indonesia, "a course I have been teaching ever since." In 1991, she conducted a workshop on intercultural relations with participants from Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Nepal, the Philippines and Thailand. During the 1994 meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Jakarta, Agoes was among 20 Indonesian women invited to discuss world problems with Hillary Clinton.

As head of her own firm, "Visi"-Bahasa Indonesian for vision-she advises corporate clients and others on the best way to achieve intercultural understanding. "Yes, there are cultural differences and it's important to understand them," she said in a recent interview, "but we have our common humanity."

The arrival of multinationals occasions a shift of values, not always in keeping with Indonesian beliefs. "(These corporations) teach competition, but ours is an individual-based society built on cooperation. On one hand, people would like to have the majority of Indonesians live better, to be more affluent. Yet they do not wish to introduce greed. All these turbulences that come with what people call globalization have to be understood."

This fall, Agoes returned to UB, where she is studying for a Ph.D. in the American Studies Department; again, the focus is intercultural studies. Accompanied by her teenage son, Pasha, a student at Amherst Central High School, Agoes finds a satisfying environment for learning and growth, as she keeps in touch with her husband, Asmir, in Jakarta, via phone and E-mail.